Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Review: Drive-Away Dolls

Be lesbian do crime.

If there is one word that describes the filmography of the Coen brothers, it is ‘quirky.’ They are almost instantly quotable. There is always some character with an outlandish accent. There is an endlessly weird plot that nevertheless says something intelligent and profound about America (and it’s always America) by the end. Now, Ethan Coen sets off with his debut as a solo director, the lesbian crime film Drive-Away Dolls, written by Coen and Tricia Cooke, released in February of 2024.

This film is set at a very particular junction in American history: the late 1990s, the turn of the millennium, the dawn of the digital age, the time when America bestrode the world like a colossus with no equal (and I must admit, it is strange that a time that I was alive in, although was too young to remember, being born in the last days of 1996, is becoming the object of these somewhat nostalgic period pieces, as has been done with the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s - Madame Web, being set in 2004, was something that made me feel very old, despite not being that old). In this regard, it feels like an odd throwback to older crime films, albeit with a Coen-esque quirkiness and an unrepentant queerness.

When I was describing this movie to my sister, I called it ‘be lesbian do crime,’ to echo the internet meme. This is a movie that is about lesbians, primarily a pair of characters whose inner journeys parallel the very real physical journey on which they have embarked. This voyage starts in Philadelphia, where Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) rent a car that happens to be carrying precious cargo for organized crime. They are pursued, and hijinks ensue. I would understand if viewers are worried that a straight man would not write or direct lesbian characters well, as there are so many of them in the ensemble, but it bears noting that Ethan Coen’s wife Tricia Cooke, who is a lesbian (they have a relationship where they each have sex with other partners but are involved romantically with one another, from what I can tell - an odd arrangement, but if it works for them, more power to them), co-wrote the film. I accept that, as a straight man, I am utterly not the best person to judge the representation of lesbians in this film, but at least one lesbian was intimately involved in its production. Make of that what you will.

As you would expect from its director, this is a gut-bustingly funny film; my lungs were tired by the end of it. It has the trademark razor-sharp wit that results in lines that are eminently quotable. This is punctuated by perfect delivery, especially by Qualley’s Jamie, the designated ‘funny woman’ to Viswanathan’s ‘straight woman’ (in the comedy sense, not the sexuality sense, of course). Qualley is the designated character with the funny accent, a Texas twang that emphasizes what a fish out of water she is on the East Coast, and what a foil she is to Viswanathan.

What really shines in this film are the performances of Qualley and Viswanathan. They are, as I said, a traditional comedic duo; one is bubbly and extroverted, and the other introverted and intellectual (she spends much of the time reading Henry James, and describes him as long winded; as someone who recently read The American Scene I found her complaints amusingly relatable). So much of the film is Jamie trying to break Marian out of her shell, be it at skeevy lesbian dive bars or swanky Florida hotels or college parties. It’s a delightful contrast of characters that the writing gets a lot of mileage out of. They are yin and yang, so different and yet so necessary for each other.

Something should also be said for two of the hired guns the mob sends after them, who in some ways parallel the two leads. They are Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C. J. Wilson), another comedic duo. One wants the other to live a little, while the latter thinks the former is a nag. It is a blunter, more physical partnership, one more concerned with brawn than brain, and is in many ways a funhouse mirror of the protagonists. They likewise bumble through the American South, including multiple juke joints. They have that same clash and yet complement of personality, of contradictory but congruent goals, but the congruence only lasts so long before it heads south in a way that the protagonists never did.

There is a lot of sex in this film, to an extent that somewhat shocked me, even with some idea that it was there. To my straight male eyes, the cinematography and the writing of these scenes did not strike me as written for the male gaze, as so many scenes of lesbian intimacy have been over the years, although I am the first to admit I am not the most qualified person to judge that. Every sex scene in this film has a meaning to it, a purpose to it, and all of them involve character development in an artful way. Indeed, there is a warmth and intimacy to some of these scenes that have the role of more chaste scenes in more reserved films, to the point I cannot help but suspect that a degree of parody of more serious dramas is involved. Ethan Coen, so far as I can tell, views his two leads as proper characters and not merely objects of lust, and it enriches the film.

Drive-Away Dolls is fun, good fun. It is yet another great film produced by a Coen in Hollywood, although interestingly one that is only helmed by one of them (I wonder why Joel was not involved, but that’s ultimately his business). I don’t know where it fits in the history of queer representation in Hollywood, but that’s not my call to make. All I can say is that it is really funny, and quite touching in just the right parts. I highly recommend it.


The Math

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.